Lesson 2.1 – Gift Economies: A Past, Present, and Future Tradition
Before we dive into what a Buy Nothing community looks like, let’s take a look at gift economies throughout history. The act of giving a gift builds “social capital”. In The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan
, we define social capital as “the productive social relationships in any community that make up the true web of mutual bonds.” In small communities where the whole community has to work together or perish, gifting strengthens the bonds between community members. A stronger community is more likely to survive than a weaker one. Gifts of time are given to harvest crops or build a barn. You just literally can’t do it all by yourself and neither can your neighbor. Gift giving and thus the gift economy
Many indigenous peoples see humans as part of the natural world in which there is a cycle of giving and receiving. Thanks are given for the gifts of food, shelter, etc and in keeping with the cycle of life, gifts are given back to the Earth in return. One example of gift giving is a Potlatch
, a practice used by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US. Potlatches are held during major life events. A family or families host the event and give away items to build social capital. The more you give away the more connections and wealthy in relationships you become. As an example of people outlawing things they don’t understand or see as a threat, the Canadian government outlawed potlatches for a time.
As communities grow larger and more urban, those bonds no longer feel necessary for survival or even for currency, and the monetary system becomes the currency. The social capital that serves a valuable purpose is eclipsed by financial capital. Accumulating more money and using it to buy items or services separates us from our neighbors. Our relationships have become strained as money is used as the primary strength of our economy.
Yet many of us still give our time to those we love, creating a social capital bond. We volunteer to help at our kids’ school or help a friend move. In doing so we keep alive the idea that if we give of ourselves then others will do the same, perhaps when we need it. Giving also can’t happen without receiving, creating a loop of reciprocity. When you give, you also receive the gratitude and fulfillment that comes from helping others. The person receiving your gift of time or material goods has the opportunity to experience gratitude as well. Bringing gift economies back into our lives brings strangers together with social capital. It allows us to see beyond ourselves to the community around us and share in the giving, asking and gratitude.
There is space and need for both the market and gift economy to exist, yet the market economy has shaped our psyche, and indeed our behavior, for so long we’ve lost the lessons learned from the gift economy. The popularity of the Buy Nothing Project and other models of giving freely with no strings attached, such as Karma Kitchen,
has shown that it’s time to bring back this practice of the circular system of giving, asking, and gratitude that strengthens our social fabric and reconnects us with our neighbors.